Two Oaxaqueña Poets
Photo by: Hannelore Vonier, 2008 Hannelore Vonier, 2008

Two Oaxaqueña Poets

The phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of the poet­ic imag­i­na­tion allows us to explore the being of man con­sid­ered as the being of a sur­face, of the sur­face that sep­a­rates the region of the same from the region of the oth­er. It should not be for­got­ten that in this zone of sen­si­tized sur­face, before being, one must speak, if not to oth­ers, at least to one­self. And advance always. In this ori­en­ta­tion, the uni­verse of speech gov­erns all the phe­nom­e­na of being, that is, the new phe­nom­e­na. By means of poet­ic lan­guage, waves of new­ness flow over the sur­face of being. And lan­guage bears with­in itself the dialec­tics of open and closed. Through mean­ing it enclos­es, while through poet­ic expres­sion, it opens up.

Gas­ton Bachelard, The Poet­ics of Space

Oax­a­ca is an almost inex­plic­a­ble and com­plex place. So often I have tried to express to oth­ers what the essence of Oax­a­ca is though lan­guage and have failed. If poet­ry is an exten­sion of our lan­guage, or as typog­ra­pher, lin­guist and poet Robert Bringhurst believes, a spe­cial type of knowl­edge before and beyond lan­guage, per­haps we can come to know some­thing about Oax­a­ca after all. There is some­thing we can come close to artic­u­lat­ing about the mag­ic of this land and its peo­ple through the poet­ry of our own being. It is like­ly, how­ev­er, that the clos­est we might ever get to under­stand­ing the essence[s] of this moun­tain­ous south­ern Mex­i­can state is through the eyes, words and voic­es of two of her poet­ic cham­pi­ons. One who has passed and one who is very present, María Sabi­na and Natal­ia Tole­do Paz.

Here we have two very dif­fer­ent poets that nonethe­less share some­thing very impor­tant in com­mon. Although María Sabi­na was a Maza­tec Curan­dera (Shaman) oral poet and Natal­ia Tole­do is a con­tem­po­rary Zapotec poet, both poets explore the his­to­ry and poten­tial­i­ties of their indige­nous tongues and cul­ture. Fur­ther­more, both poets revive an indige­nous knowl­edge and sense of space. Anoth­er impor­tant com­mon­al­i­ty in their poet­ry is the pro­jec­tion of the fem­i­nine body and spir­it. Both wom­en do a com­mend­able job in darn­ing the bod­ies which colo­nial­ism had tried so hard to des­e­crate: the indige­nous and female bod­ies. They are post­colo­nial artists cre­at­ing and recre­at­ing a sense of place for Oax­aque­ños and Mex­i­cans alike. Both in their lan­guage and in their poet­ics we find a sense of what Oax­a­ca is, we expe­ri­ence, even if only momen­tar­i­ly, the elu­sive spir­it of this diverse and com­pli­cat­ed place. Let’s take a brief look at each of the­se poets in chrono­log­i­cal order.

María Sabi­na (1894? — 1985)

Because you gave me your clock
Because you gave me your thought
Bea­cause I am a clean wom­an
Because I am a Cross Star wom­an
Because I am a wom­an who flies
I am the sacred eagle wom­an, says
I am the Lord eagle wom­an, says
I am the lady who swims, says

Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch wom­an
Because I am the sacred oppo­sum
Because I am the Lord oppo­sum

I am the wom­an Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the wom­an of the pop­u­lous town, says
I am the shep­herdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the wom­an who shep­herds the immense, says
I am a shep­herdess and I come with my shep­herd, says
Because every­thing has its orig­in
And I come going from place to place from the orig­in.

María Sabi­na was born some­time in the late nine­teen­th cen­tu­ry in the Sier­ra Mazteca in the Sier­ra Madre de Oax­a­ca moun­tain range. María was to become the first Curan­dera or Shaman to allow West­ern­ers to par­tic­i­pate in the prac­tice. She was known for her use of psilo­cy­bin mush­rooms as a heal­ing and spir­i­tu­al prac­tice. María believed that the mush­rooms act­ed as a gate­way to open­ing the mind and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with God. She often referred to the mush­rooms as her holy or sacred chil­dren and claimed to com­mu­ni­cate with them; how­ev­er, after an influx of West­ern drug tourists to Oax­a­ca she pro­claimed that “from the moment [they the] for­eign­ers arrived, the ‘holy chil­dren’ lost their puri­ty. They lost their force, their puri­ty. Hence­forth, they will no longer work. There is no rem­e­dy for it.” María was born into pover­ty and she would die impov­er­ished and starv­ing to death. Her prac­tice in the heal­ing arts was the cul­mi­na­tion and per­haps the end of pure indige­nous shaman­ism in Oax­a­ca. What remains of her eter­nal­ly are records of her chants, her poet­ry.

María Sabina’s poet­ry is in the oral tra­di­tion. Her poems take the form of chants, in which she calls upon the voic­es of her holy chil­dren, the mush­rooms, to speak through her and grant her access to the divine in order to heal. Her chant­i­ng as seen in the poem above pro­vid­ed the lis­ten­er and patient a rhyth­mi­cal­ly cathar­tic expe­ri­ence. The lan­guage she spoke was Maztec and in Maztec the mush­rooms are known as ‘nti-ši-tho, ‘Lit­tle one who springs forth’. Maztecan lan­guage fam­i­ly (as Maztec is a group of lan­guages) is a part of the Oto-Manguean lan­guage fam­i­ly found in indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties all over Mex­i­co. Oto-Manguean lan­guages are tonal in nature in both gram­mar and lex­is. The Maztec lan­guage fam­i­ly is also notable in its devel­op­ment of whistle speech in which con­ver­sa­tions might be had in full through whistling.

María Sabi­na exploit­ed the lan­guage to its fullest using its tonal­i­ty in hum­ming and whistling, and in the rep­e­ti­tion and spon­tane­ity in her chants, poet­ry and song. She believed that the mush­rooms would allow her to reach back to the first-lan­guage, the root lan­guage, the lan­guage of all things. She said that the lan­guage would fall upon her from the heav­ens which she would catch like lit­tle gifts. Cer­tain­ly her voice, as archived and recorder by an Amer­i­can banker and psy­che­delic adven­tur­er R. Gor­don Was­son, evokes a pri­mor­dial time­less­ness, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and out-of-bod­i­ness to it. With it we feel the immor­tal­i­ty of the spir­it of the land of Oax­a­ca. A cel­e­bra­tion of life and life after death. María brings to life the dor­mant spir­it of Oax­a­ca and invites us to open our eyes to the beau­ty of her mag­ic which is to be found in her spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes and deep in the souls of her ancient peo­ples.

In her poet­ry and in her life María Sabi­na also evokes a sense of the com­plex­i­ties of life in Oax­a­ca. Though an indige­nous wom­an high in the moun­tains of Oax­a­ca she was not immune to the effects of col­o­niza­tion. She was a spir­i­tu­al­ly com­plex wom­an prac­tic­ing a sort of the­o­log­i­cal syn­cretism between her indige­nous belief sys­tems and of a hybrid Catholi­cism. Of course this colo­nial inher­i­tance also lead to a syn­cretism in her lan­guage which act­ed as a fuse between the ancient and colo­nial worlds of Oax­a­ca and Mex­i­co. Through this poet­ic hybrid­i­ty of her spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and lan­guage we can get a sense of the com­plex­i­ties of a post-colo­nial cul­tur­al inher­i­tance in Oax­a­ca. María Sabina’s poet­ics embody the con­tra­dic­to­ry nature of life as a sur­vivor of col­o­niza­tion and the com­plex­i­ties of a glob­al­iz­ing world in the face of an ongo­ing impe­ri­al­ism and col­o­niza­tion tak­ing the forms of West­ern lib­er­al­ism, neolib­er­al­ism, and demo­c­ra­t­ic free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism. Her voice will always echo as a spir­i­tu­al and rev­o­lu­tion­ary call to and from the ancient and first peo­ples of Oax­a­ca. Her lega­cy is an under­stand­ing or a glimpse of what Oax­a­ca is through a poet­ic sys­tem of lan­guage and epis­te­mol­o­gy.

Natal­ia Tole­do (1967)

House of My Dreams

I come down from the moun­tain
a pool of spring water looks back at me,
I see my grandmother’s house
in the mid­st of the jun­gle.
I walk upon the foliage
a heavy door opens,
I can touch the peel­ing walls
what does my nose smell?
The can­dle releas­es its incense
in the breeze­way.
I open the win­dow, there is the jun­gle:
the house is cool,
I go to the kitchen
the ket­tles are my mother’s womb.
Smells of sour­sop and ripen­ing nance,
the sound of oil fry­ing, fish smoke.
What do I feel?: I am con­tent.
I descend the moun­tain, before me:
a white house with miss­ing tiles
beds of thread stretch across their skies, in my gar­den no short­age of birds.
I caress a deer and her eyes are an oval sad­ness.
I’m wear­ing a plaid shirt
and two crabs pinch my lit­tle girl nip­ples,
I don’t smile; I stand stiff as a post.
I am eight years old and my body is a house that remem­bers her house.

Trans­lat­ed by Natal­ia Tole­do from Zapotec to Span­ish, Span­ish trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish by Clare Sul­li­van for Asymp­tote Jour­nal.

Natal­ia Tole­do is a con­tem­po­rary Zapotec poet born in Juchitán de Zaragoza, a small city locat­ed in the Oax­a­can Isth­mus. It was in her native tongue and through the expe­ri­ences afford­ed her in the imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment that she was brought into that she believes she had found her voice as a poet. She once claimed that “Zapotec is an invi­ta­tion to metaphor; it is a lan­guage in which you paint a metaphor­i­cal pic­ture of what you wish to express. Zapotec has a great aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty for cre­at­ing images and beau­ty.“1 Toledo’s poet­ry is a self-deter­min­ing poet­ry in which she wish­es to break the famil­iar stereo­types of what it means to be Juchite­can. It is a poet­ry that is at once con­fes­sion­al, unabashed­ly Juchite­can and Zapote­can, and pro­found­ly humane and uni­ver­sal. Toledo’s poet­ry evokes a sense of nos­tal­gia; how­ev­er, they reach far beyond nos­tal­gia in the uni­ver­sal­i­ty and time­less­ness. Her poems espouse an epis­te­mol­o­gy, a lan­guage, and emo­tive seizure of human­i­ty.

Like Mezteca the Zapotec lan­guages are also a branch of the Oto-Manguean fam­i­ly. Toledo’s mater­nal lan­guage is a small belongs to the Zapotec sub-fam­i­ly and is called Isth­mus Zapotec and is native to her home­town Juchitán de Zaragoza and neigh­bour­ing Tehuan­te­pec. Like many of the sub-fam­i­ly lan­guages in the Oto-Manguean fam­i­ly this branch of Zapotec might be com­plete­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble to anoth­er. This makes each lan­guage geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tinct in that each lan­guage will come to rep­re­sent its own region­al unique­ness. It wasn’t until col­o­niza­tion that Zapotec lan­guages were given a “West­ern­ized” alpha­bet, and in the past had been large­ly writ­ten as logo­pho­net­ic scripts. Zapotec is fun­da­men­tal­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly an oral lan­guage. Much like the ancient tra­di­tions of sto­ry-telling, poet­ry, and knowl­edge it was passed on oral­ly.

The oral­i­ty of Toledo’s poet­ry trans­vers­es cul­ture and time under­min­ing Oaxaca’s colo­nial her­itage cel­e­brat­ing indige­nous lan­guage and tra­di­tion while at the same ear­mark­ing and cel­e­brat­ing the evo­lu­tion of a post­colo­nial strug­gle for a lan­guage and cul­ture to tran­scend the typ­i­cal his­tor­i­cal annex­a­tion of a way of life and being in this world. The open syl­la­ble struc­ture of the Zapote­can lan­guage and Toledo’s poet­ry in it gives a sense of the lan­guage open­ing up and blos­som­ing into the world. It is as if every word is born for the exact moment it is spo­ken. An Open syl­la­ble lan­guage requires all syl­la­bles to end with a vow­el. This the mouth remains open and the tongue remains unob­tru­sive­ly in the mid­dle allow­ing air to flow direct­ly in and out from the lungs. The sound of the vow­els ascend from silence ris­ing sky­ward giv­ing Toledo’s poems, and her lan­guage, a lofty feel­ing that one is float­ing along side them. As poet­ry should it tran­scends lan­guage and pro­vides us with new epis­te­molo­gies and eyes from which to see the world anew.

Toledo’s poet­ry does not only explore her lan­guage and cul­ture, but it explores what it means to be a wom­an with­in the Zapote­can, Juchite­can and Oax­a­can cul­tur­al land­scape. Her poet­ry explores the embed­ded­ness of the fem­i­nine body with­in its cul­tur­al con­text. As with the poem quot­ed above, her poet­ry express­es meta­phys­i­cal bod­ies, tac­tile bod­ies and bod­ies of rever­ie. Her poems seem to attempt to bridge the widen­ing gap of under­stand­ing of what it is to be a Juchite­can wom­an and provide us with an atlas of the meta­mor­pho­sis of an ancient cul­ture through a post­colo­nial lens. Her words act as a ral­ly­ing cry to revive her lan­guage and cul­ture and in their most solemn times they might sound like a future epi­taph mark­ing the head­stone of a cul­ture that could sur­vive col­o­niza­tion but has strug­gled to sur­vive its sec­ond wave in the form and fetishiza­tion of West­ern neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism.

Poet­ry and the Birth of Under­stand­ing

Lan­guage is sec­ond to poet­ry. Some say that poet­ry is lan­guage. But I will agree with Robert Bringhurst when he claims that poet­ry is not exclu­sive to lan­guage, that “poet­ry is not man­made; it is not pret­ty words; it is not some­thing hybridized by humans on the farm of human lan­guage. Poet­ry is a qual­i­ty or aspect of exis­tence. It is the think­ing of things.“2 If we are to take seri­ous­ly the indige­nous roots of the­se two Oax­a­can poets we must take seri­ous­ly their epis­te­mol­o­gy, their way of know­ing. Bringhurst also tells us that poet­ry, like sci­ence, is a way of find­ing some­thing out, it is a method­olog­i­cal tool for under­stand­ing. Poet­ry and think­ing are as linked as poet­ry and being. Poet­ry is not just epis­te­mol­o­gy but the expres­sion of how we exist, of our being-in-this-world.

This is what is so supreme­ly impor­tant about the­se two poets. Through them we can find the pri­mor­dial expres­sion of what it is to be Meztecan, Zapote­can or Oax­a­can. Through their poet­ry and their knowl­edge and expres­sion we can come to a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the essence of Oax­a­ca in all of its com­plex­i­ty and con­tra­dic­tion. Through the trans­ver­sal­i­ty of their poet­ics with cul­ture, lan­guage, gen­der and his­to­ry we get a glimpse of the uni­ver­sal. We come to under­stand that we all want to under­stand some­thing and per­haps, with­in the lim­its of our lan­guages, the best way to express our under­stand­ing is through poet­ry and to exist as poet­i­cal­ly as the poems we read, recite and become. Both poets present us with a becom­ing: becom­ing indige­nous and becom­ing wom­an. In the­se becom­ings we feel a meta­mor­pho­sis and become links to the past. In this sense we trav­el with the­se two wom­en as they wel­come us into their worlds.


  1. Sourced from an unpub­lished inter­view by Don­ald Frischmann in his book: Mon­temay­or, Car­los, and Don­ald H. Frischmann. Words of the True Peo­ples: Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Mex­i­can Indige­nous-lan­guage Writ­ers. Austin, TX: U of Tex­as, 2005.
  2. Robert Bringhurst. The Tree of Mean­ing. Gaspereau Press, Kentville, Nova Sco­tia, 2006.